The BBC reported on Friday that automated HGVs are to be trialled on Britain’s roads, marking another development in transport automation.
‘Platooning’, where vehicles drive insanely close to each other and are controlled by wifi, is already commonplace in the Netherlands, where it’s already been successfully trialled, and in some US states.
In a platoon the lead driver has control over steering and breaking, prompting the vehicles behind it to copy its movements. The bunching together of successive freight vehicles cuts down on drag, like the Peloton in the Tour-de-France, reducing fuel consumption.
For the time being platoons will be limited to three vehicles and all vehicles will have drivers in case of emergencies but the implication is clear – slowly but surely the freight industry will move towards greater automation. Driverless cars are already in an advanced stage of development and are set for their first UK trials in 2019.
With the roads far and away the most effective and common method of moving goods, almost 300,000 people were employed driving HGVs in 2015, with that number continuing to rise year-on-year from a 2013 low of 259,000.
One of the often cited benefits of driverless cars is their ability to ease congestion on the roads. Theoretically, driverless cars have greater potential for car sharing and can be constantly in use. Rather than sitting outside workplaces or houses most of the time, a driverless car be programmed to service the needs of one of several users when they are not required. On the road they will, eventually, drive faster and smarter because they will remove the potential for human error that causes accidents.
Similar benefits will eventually be gleaned from driverless freight, particularly as regulation limits HGV drivers to 48 hours a week of driving. If the two vehicles in a platoon become driverless this would ensure that more vehicles could be on the road for longer resulting in quicker distribution times.
But the knock-on effect could lead to a net reduction in employment both in HGV driving and in production.
Increasing automation means that everything is temporary, with each development increasing the speed with which the next one arrives.
Which is why we need to talk about it.
Join us in the Long Gallery, Stormont to discuss The Workforce versus the Machines: The challenges and opportunities of AI and automation on 21 September.